Kurt Elling with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra at The Queen’s Hall Edinburgh was the first of four venues across Scotland to have their new collaborative work 'Apparition Bridge' performed, and if you could not make it along to this event, try to get to one of the other tour dates as this one is something very special. This show was also my first opportunity (I was unable to review the last show in September) to be able to see and hear the SNJO after an all too long a period away, back on stage where they belong and as always pushing musical boundaries.
The SNJO and renowned Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling probably need few (if any introductions) in this review, but the initial idea of what was to lead to this new collaborative work between everyone involved does. Over the years, Kurt Elling and saxophonist/SNJO director Tommy Smith have worked together on various projects that have been developed for this jazz orchestra and this one perhaps had the most elusive concept of all. This time, the idea from Tommy Smith to Kurt Elling was to select works from mainly living European Jazz composers and give them not only words and lyrics (which they had previously not had), but connect them together as a thematic project.
Anyone who has ever attempted to write words to music that was not designed for them will tell you how difficult a task this can be, and Kurt Elling not only had to do this, but to also listen to many works in order to select those that not only inspired those words but fitted into a larger project, and somehow with a combination of new lyrics and spoken word combined with some of his favourite poetry, the words and music have combined into something new, ‘Apparition Bridge”.
Bridges are special constructs in our landscape, that allow us to connect from one physical space to another over a land feature (often water), but not all bridges are like this, some are ancient lands like the now submerged Doggerland, an ancient and now completely submerged land bridge that one connected Britain to Continental Europe. On this land a once thriving farming community once lived for thousands of years and “lost” bridges like this are part of our theme tonight. Many of the other bridges are, however, intangible to the touch, but nonetheless very real; bridges that connect hearts and souls, bind lovers together, or reach back into our personal and larger cultural past. There is of course that final bridge that we all must cross at some time, that bridge between this life and whatever is beyond it. Our own Celtic mythology of course is full of tales of bridges between this world and the world of the faerie folks and unseen spirits.
All of these “new” works are of course bridges within their own right as previously unconnected words and music are joined together to make something new. It is this something new that allowed the SNJO to not only perform a programme full of variety and musical colours tonight but to also allow space for the performance of some fine solo work from Tommy Smith, Martin Kershaw, Konrad Wiszniewski and others (sorry if I have not mentioned your name here, just limited space in this review). All of this work was made more remarkable by finding out that schedules have only so far allowed for two days rehearsal on this work, and it is a tribute to the skills of everyone involved that such high standards were possible in such a short period of time.
A work like this of course requires many collaborations with people and there is just not space to list everyone in this review, but the information is available on the digital programme for this event, plus dates for other performances at https://s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/snjo.co.uk/programmes/SNJO_ApparitionBridge2111_programme.pdf
There was also an interesting pre-show talk with Kurt Elling and Tommy Smith, and I mention it because it, to me, has a direct link with these works. A question from Tommy to Kurt was about his perceived differences between American and European Jazz and the answer lay in the different cultural routes, one coming from its African origins and the other being grounded in centuries of European classical music traditions. There is an unseen cultural bridge here between the two that, like these works, has allowed both cultural routes to exchange information and ideas and in the process to create something different and new, and that process is still evolving and will probably continue to evolve forever.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
ARTS REVIEWS EDINBURGH
Death Drop is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh for a short run this week (Wed 17 Nov to Sat 20 Nov), and this West End hit show was one that I had been looking forward to for a while as I had heard a lot of good things about it. On paper, this show, with its on stage cast of talent, an experienced director, and a production company responsible for many other hit shows should have so easily injected this parody of the murder mystery genre with razor sharp humour and originality.
What happened then, why for me is this show just not only a “Death Drop” right off the stage, but right off the edge of a very high cliff as well? There are many reasons I suppose, but a big part of the problems for me are that many cabaret and drag shows that I have reviewed over the years have been what I expected to experience here, razor sharp humour and something original being brought to the stage. Sadly, for me, this show was neither and a large part of that responsibility has to lie with a script (Holly Stars) that not only appears all too often to be directionless, but also all too often falls back on two very boring and lazy “get out clauses” - bad language and sexually explicit humour that appears to be there just for the sake of it in a feeble attempt to shock an audience. One all too explicit scene in the second half when we are introduced to our “French” detective makes me wonder how this show is rated suitable for 12 year olds.
Set in 1991 in a remote house, the guests are invited to the annual celebration of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, but of course all is not as it seems and our main stars from high profile reality television Drag shows Willam, Ra’Jah O’Hara, Vinegar Strokes, and Karen from Finance just have little room to turn this production into the amazing work of theatre that it has the potential to be, and although there are a few brief glimpses here and there, the show ends up stuck in a toilet joke that seems to go on forever and many other over-used jokes and themes. Perhaps another problem is that all of our characters are just cardboard stereotypes that have their origins way back in the dark days of some bad television comedy shows of the 1960s and 1970s. They were not funny then, and are certainly not funny now. The opportunity to write real characters of depth and emotion was missed here and this cast could have injected real life people and some great performances into this show.
By its very nature, this show was always going to be treading a fine line between good and bad taste, there was always going to be that element of “in your face” sexual humour, but all too often innuendos and double entendres simply move into unnecessary crudity. All of this might be perfect in a late night cabaret/drag show setting, but all shows need to suit their audience profile and this was not a late night show where the audience were well into their drinks from the bar, this was a major theatre with an early evening audience. The show also seems to make the mistake of not understanding that by the very act of purchasing a ticket to this show that someone is already on board with the drag format and instead of constantly taking up time reminding the audience of that, this time could have been far better used to for character, plot and humour development.
Maybe in the end it was just me and I was disappointed at this show not living up to my expectations as many people in the audience were obviously finding much to laugh at here, as have so many other audiences who have made this show the hit that it is. I was, however, expecting a show that could maybe capture a little bit of that “Rocky Horror” show magic in a new genre and stage setting and what I got was something that seemed for a few minutes at the opening of the show to have the promise to do something a little special. Despite a few Monty Pythonesque moments and an all too few moments of originality, far too many forced and all too often childish attempts at humour that were simply not funny at all, then quickly meant that this show murdered itself and performed its own “Death Drop”.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
ARTS REVIEWS EDINBURGH
The Dock Brief from Rapture Theatre at Assembly Roxy Edinburgh this afternoon was my first experience of the “Rapture Bites Classic lunchtime theatre” format, and an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so in the early afternoon.
This work, written by John Mortimer (probably best known for his creation of Rumpole of The Bailey), was first performed on stage in 1958, but was originally written as a radio play and performed the previous year in 1957, and with capital punishment for murder and a very clearly divided class system, this work is very much a period piece of its time.
The play takes its name, The Dock Brief, from the English legal system of the time when prior to the introduction of Legal Aid, an accused person without a solicitor could choose a barrister of their choice if they were sitting for selection in court whilst fully gowned.
This then is how Herbert Fowle (Glyn Pritchard), accused of murdering his wife because she laughed too much, meets his a court-appointed defence barrister Morgenhall (John Bett). Rather worryingly to the audience at least, but not it seems to Fowle, his barrister has never actually won a case, and what follows is a gentle comedy on the inept and at times almost farcical nature of the legal system itself whilst at the same time exploring the obvious issues of perceived class and educational differences between the barrister and his client.
Directed by Lyn McAndrew, there is much to admire in this work that seems to belong to a far gentler time where a solid script, gentle humour, and no bad language were the order of the day in most broadcast and staged productions. This seems to be a format that suits our two actors well too as Glyn Pritchard and John Bett were not only enjoying this script as much as many of the audience this afternoon, but there was also that humour of working together between them that roles like this have to have to work properly. At times, there was almost, despite the gravity of the situation, a childish sense of play here as an inept barrister obviously needs the support of his client more than his client needed him. Both men here seem to have happily accepted that life has not given them their dreams, but whilst Herbert Fowle has come to accept his fate, his barrister, Morgenhall is still, in his mind at least, playing out on the stage of his mind a life of enormous success.
This was theatre working at its most basic and, for me, interesting level with nothing but a simple set and two skilled performers working their craft to a very close at hand audience.
I do ask myself, however, if in the wider spectrum of things a play about a man charged with murder for killing his wife for simply laughing too much over the years would even be made today in our current and correct re-evaluation of domestic violence towards women? I have to be fair to this work and say that it does not appear to be condoning this violence, but using the absurdity of a legal system to deal properly with this and many other areas of the law.
This was, as I have said, my first experience of “Rapture Bites Classic lunchtime theatre” format, and the opportunity, if you wanted, to have a light lunch before the show, and to stay after the show for Q & As with the director and actors whilst enjoying coffee and cake, is an interesting way to try and break down barriers between an audience and what is happening on stage. Rapture Theatre are making great efforts to de-mystify the whole experience of going to the theatre to see a play, to make everything as informal and accessible as possible, and this work is just as important as anything that is taking place on stage.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
ARTS REVIEWS EDINBURGH
Eric & Ern was at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh tonight for one date only, and that was an all too brief a visit as this faithful homage by Ian Ashpitel & Jonty Stephens to the now iconic comedy duo, Morecambe and Wise, brought back so many good memories to the audience tonight.
The original Morecambe and Wise team of course need no introduction to anyone who watched British television in the 1960s and 1970s and their television shows for the BBC (and later ITV) are now the stuff of British television comedy legend, with their Christmas specials regularly getting huge audience viewing figures (some around 20 million viewers). The television shows were of course only part of the story with the partnership of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise going back to the heyday of British Variety Theatre and lasting from 1941 to Eric’s death in 1984 (Ernie died in 1999).
Although obviously developed further for its current format, this show owes much of its success to a very well received run at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, and somehow the show still manages to retain that “Fringe” feel to it, and I mean that in the best of terms.
It is obvious that Ian Ashpitel & Jonty Stephens share a huge love of Morecambe and Wise and their work, and so many of the iconic one liners and comedy sketches are in this show, including Grieg’s Piano concerto, Mr Memory, and the paper bag trick, that many of the audience know what is coming next, and that shared experience of these “classics” makes this show a little special. There is also the famous television living room couch and that double bed that the duo shared together. Why they shared a bed together was never explained, but I always took it as their homage to another great comedy duo who often did the same thing - Laurel and Hardy. There was a special musical guest appearance too, from singer Sinead Wall. The show of course also has to include some of the duo’s famous musical numbers, and “Bring Me Sunshine” is their signature tune that so many people in the audience still remembered every word of tonight.
This show is pure nostalgia, and you do have to know who some of the people that ran through jokes in their shows from this period are – Des O’Connor being the main person of course. The comedy of this show is very much of its time, and lovingly recreated by Ian Ashpitel & Jonty Stephens, and although there are many subtle and not so subtle innuendos here, the strict broadcasting rules of the time meant that our duo and their writers could never use bad language or be sexually explicit in their humour. Even if they could have, that was not the humour of Morecambe and Wise. Like this show, that was pure family entertainment for everyone.
I have to admit to always being pretty neutral to Morecambe & Wise and their style of comedy, but I do recognise them as masters of their art form who not only entertained many millions of people over their 40 plus years together as a duo, but also as entertainers who secured a very special place in the hearts of the British public. They, of course, also inspired so many comedians who were to come after them, and Ian Ashpitel & Jonty Stephens are, with perfect comedy timing, living proof that their legacy lives on, and will probably live on as long as new generations of people re-discover their archive material and new generations of comedians inspired by that discovery take to the stage and screen.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
ARTS REVIEWS EDINBURGH
Dirty Dancing is at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh this week (Mon 08 Nov to Sat 13 Nov), and as always it is simply a fun night out, and judging from the audience tonight, very much a “girls” night. As always with this show, much of the audience attention is directed towards the summer camp dance teacher Johnny Castle, performed this time by Michael O’Reilly.
This show is of course the stage adaptation of the now classic 1987 film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey and it includes the big hit songs from this film including "Hungry Eyes" and "(I've Had) The Time of My Life". There are of course some classic hits from the early 1960s to fit in with the 1963 family summer vacation, which is also set against events happening in the civil rights movement of the time. There has also been a 2017 American television film remake of Dirty Dancing, but I am not sure how many people have seen that one (I haven’t).
As always, this stage production comes down to two things, whoever is playing Johnny Castle getting that delicate balance between confidence and vulnerability right (he can never be arrogant in his success with women), and whoever is playing Frances “Baby” Houseman looking like she has found the man of her dreams in Johnny Castle and making the audience believe in that too. Here both Michael O’ Reilly and Kira Malou get their characters pretty much just right, and when they are dancing together, or just even on stage together, there is an obvious chemistry there between them, and without this, this show can easily fall apart.
With so much of the focus of this production being on two people, that leaves little room for any depth of character development for anyone else and although Johnny’s professional dance partner Penny Johnson (Carlie Milner) has maybe the best “second” story line in the show, Penny is however in this production simply to dance and not to give a dramatic performance (no one is, it is simply not that type of a show). Like-wise, Frances’ family – father (Lynden Edwards), mother (Jackie Morrison) and older sister Lisa (Lizzie Ottley) have limited opportunities to shine here as their roles are really supportive ones.
Dirty Dancing is of course about dancing and there are some energetic cast/ensemble performances here, and everything is done well. What, however, lets much of this production down is the lack of any real stage set. Sorry, but placing what is little more than a basic two level structure with a door right and left of stage and a few basic back-drops/stage setting in the centre is just not enough for a production like this, and certainly not enough for a stage the size of the one at the Festival Theatre. This set is budget constrictions carried a little too far, but I can understand that getting performers back on stage after so long away maybe took consideration over the detailed and obviously expensive stage set that I have seen in previous productions of this show. This does, however, mean that when there are no big dance numbers on stage the cast are all too often moving in a lot of empty stage space and the iconic water scene of practising that big dance lift does suffer from a lack of imagination on how to achieve this on stage here.
Having mentioned my negatives over the stage set, I have to balance that up by saying that none of this seemed to matter to the audience tonight as many obviously knew every song here and I suspect pretty much every line, and everyone seems to be waiting for the return of Johnny Castle at the end of this story and his now iconic line “nobody puts baby in a corner”.
Dirty Dancing is what it is, a fun show for people to maybe travel back in time to that moment in their lives when they were watching the original movie and probably dancing somewhere to songs from it. This show is pure escapism for a few hours and there is nothing wrong with that.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
ARTS REVIEWS EDINBURGH